Friday, January 15, 2010

2010 Australian Open Men's Preview: Federer Seeks His Fourth Title, But Many Are Poised to Challenge

Roger Federer will attempt to become only the second man in Open Era history to secure his fourth Australian Open title as play gets underway in Melbourne on Monday.

Federer, a titlist in 2004, 2006, and 2007, boasts a career record of 47-7 at the event, which puts him only one win behind Andre Agassi, who went 48-5 at the Australian Open, including a record four Open Era titles.

But the 28-year-old Swiss maestro will be forced to deal with many a challenger before he can claim his 23rd straight Grand-Slam semifinal appearance or his 16th Grand-Slam title.

Rafael Nadal, the defending champion in Melbourne, would like nothing better than to become the first man to repeat as the Australian Open titlist since Federer in 2007.

Additionally, many feel that the draw is as wide open as it has been for many years, with Federer at 28 and seemingly content, and Nadal having genuine difficulties returning to form after an injury-marred back half of 2009, the door appears open for a handful of top-15 players to make a move on the pack.

For the first time in many years, since Federer began his reign of terror over the ATP in 2003, it could be said that at least 5 or 6 players have a legitimate shot at taking the crown. Names like Del Potro, Davydenko, Djokovic, Roddick, and Murray are all being thrown around by pundits as possible usurpers to the throne.

There is no doubt that the ATP is drawing closer to its first real whiff of parity in over five years, but if Federer and Nadal have their way, the door will remain closed on the usurpers for a little while longer.

Here is a look at how the Men's draw shapes up:

Federer's quarter:

When the draw was released I was surprised to find that, yet again, Roger Federer has been dealt a favorable draw. With the shift in the rankings that took place last Monday, it was very possible that Federer could have had a Del Potro or Murray in his quarter, but as it turned out, his stiffest challenges should come from either Fernando Verdasco or Nikolay Davydenko.

Davydenko has been En Fuego over the last month, and he has remarkably reeled off 7 consecutive victories against top-10 opponents. On paper, Davydenko seems as dangerous as they come, and it's hard to argue with that assessment.

But the longer he's kept this remarkable streak of amazing play going the more likely it seems that he'll fall from grace just when we start to think he'll never lose again.

One player that he hasn't beaten in his streak is Fernando Verdasco. If the seeds hold, Davydenko would meet him in the 4th round - and that should be a real bloodbath. Though the Russian holds a 6-1 career advantage over Verdasco, nobody can forget the mind blowing tennis that Verdasco spewed forth last year in Australia.

Meanwhile, aside from a challenging first-rounder against Igor Andreev, who took Fed to five sets in the 2008 (and has won sets against him in each of the two matches they've played), and a possible 4th-rounder with Lleyton Hewitt, Marcos Baghdatis, or Gilles Simon, Federer shouldn't be tested too much until the quarterfinals - and I'm not sure he'll be tested in that round either. But, as any Australian Open historian will tell you - stranger things have happened.

Pick: Federer

Djokovic's quarter:

It seems that the feisty Serb, a champion here in 2008, has been more interested in discussing the length of the ATP's grueling schedule than preparing for the tournament. But don't let him fool you. After a drubbing at the Kooyong at the hands of Fernando Verdasco, Djokovic stated that he's "tired of all these matches."

While he may be tired, if the ATP's 2009 win-leader finds the spark that guided him to his maiden (and only) Grand-Slam title in 2008, he should have a good chance to get through his quarter of the draw - and who knows where from there?

But speed bumps and roadblocks will appear in the form of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (no stranger to getting hot in Melbourne), Robing Soderling (provided that his ailing elbow doesn't prevent him from going all-out), Tommy Haas (he of the resurrected career), Richard Gasquet (finding his form of late) and Mikhail Youzhny (finished 2009 on a strong note).

This quarter of the draw is Novak's for the taking, but the question will be, as it always is for the mercurial Djokovic, will he be in the mood to take it?

Pick: Djokovic

Del Potro's Quarter:

The newly anointed Grand-Slam champion and No. 4 player in the world has not returned to top form since his epic win over Federer at the U.S. Open final in September.

Never been a better time than right now, right?

While Delpotro has had issues with his wrist, his pullout of the Kooyong classic is rumored to be more of a precautionary measure than a real performance-threatening issue. If that is the case, than we can expect Del Potro to be his usual surly self when the ball drops in Melbourne.

And he will need to be. If the seeds hold, there will be a highly anticipated 4th round match with Marin Cilic. Cilic is considered by many to be very close to a breakthrough in a slam, and nothing would do more for the 21-year-old's confidence than an upset over Del Potro, whose victory over Cilic in the U.S. Open quarters sparked the Giant Argentine's first title run.

Meanwhile, lurking on the top half of this quarter is an in-form Andy Roddick. Roddick, a four time semifinalist in Melbourne, may be the only top-10 man who experienced a true off-season. The 27-year-old, who is already fitter than he's ever been, will no doubt be looking to exploit his fitness advantage over those players who aren't quite prepared for the insufferable Melbourne heat.

If he can avoid a major upset, he'll likely tango with Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in the 4th round. This could be a battle royale, but if it becomes a battle of wills, expect Roddick to prevail.

Other players in this quarter of the draw who could makes some noise are, Stanislas Wawrinka (ever dangerous, albeit ever disappointing) James Blake (low expectations could free him up) and Viktor Troicki.

Pick: Roddick

Nadal's Quarter:

Some might say that Rafa has one of the more difficult quarters in the tournament, but when you take a close look at it, it's actually kind of favorable for him. Rafa's been struggling against tall and mighty hitters like Cilic and Del Potro, and neither of them are standing in his way at the moment.

A possible 3rd-round match with Philipp Kohlschreiber could prove challenging if the seeds hold, as could a 4th-match with Radek Stepanek. But Nadal, who seems to know and like the Plexicushion surface quite well, should be able to find his way through to the quarters, where he will likely have to deal with Mr. Andy Murray.

Rafa is 7-2 lifetime vs. Murray (including a five-set victory over him in Melbourne in '07), but if the two meet in the quarters, this would be one of the most highly anticipated matches of the tournament. Something tells me that it would be a classic.

Pick: Nadal

Semifinals: Roddick over Nadal, Djokovic over Federer

Finals: Roddick over Djokovic

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